On Friday evening in Glasgow, Scotland, Gabriela Stafford set a new Canadian indoor 5,000m record in 14:57.45. This race was her season opener, her 5K debut, and her first race after joining her new training group. The Toronto native made a big move in September, heading across the world to train with Laura Muir, one of the most dominant European middle distance runners.
If you’ve watched the 23-year-old closely, you would know that a breakthrough this huge was on its way. She graduated high school as a Canadian standout. Then she made huge improvements during her time at the University of Toronto, which took her to the World Junior Championships, FISU, Worlds and in 2016, the Olympics. Stafford improved every year despite some injuries and a heavy course load, and competed at world-class events against women much more experienced than her. But she always held her own.
Next to the Olympics and the World Championships, the Diamond League is the pinnacle of track racing. It’s hard to get into these events, and it’s even harder to stay composed when you feel like you’re in over your head. Stafford talked to Canadian Running in the summer about her Diamond League experiences. “When you’re in my position, just out of reach of world-class, they’re taking a chance on you. You want your performance to reflect that chance being worth it for them.”
The 2018 Birmingham Diamond League is where she met her coach, Andy Young. They spoke quickly after she ran the 1,500m and had a second call a few weeks later when he suggested she come out and try their program. She accepted, and the big gamble has clearly paid off.
Since moving, Stafford says her training has changed a lot. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot more mentally tough. Some of the workouts I’ve done this fall are just on another level in terms of both intensity and length. Some of them are just as difficult as races, so I’ve really had to up my mental game as a result.” Her workouts gave her confidence heading into her race on Friday. “Completing these workouts allowed me to approach my season opener more calmly than I have in a long while, because a 5K race can’t be harder than some of the sessions I’ve done recently.”
Stafford is no longer just out of reach of world-class. Her sub-15 5K debut is proof that there’s so much more to come for the middle distance runner. She also added that, “Being able to run workouts with one of the best middle distance runners in the world gives me the confidence that I can race with them as well.”
Heading into 2019, Stafford is hoping to break four minutes for the 1,500m and make the final at Worlds in Doha. The runner says she misses her family in Toronto, but she’s loving Scotland. “Everyone in Scotland is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I also love that you can live in a great city like Glasgow and all it takes is a quick train trip to the countryside where there’s these beautiful hikes. Being able to get out into nature easily is awesome. Plus Scotland has some really cool history. And some top notch scones with clotted cream.”
Stafford returned home to Toronto on Monday. She’s getting married Saturday and starting her final semester at the University of Toronto before moving to Scotland in the spring. And guess what, folks? She’s still got U Sports eligibility. Wink.